14 November 2013


I’ve just caught up on the first instalment of Dominic Sandbrook’s BBC TV series Strange Days: Cold War Britain, first aired on Tuesday.

It’s a very mixed bag. There is some good archive footage, not all of which I’d seen – but its tone is almost ridiculously sensationalist, and some of its elisions and simplifications are breathtaking.

I’m not going to give chapter and verse, but it’s really cheap to use the Cambridge spies and the idiotic “Red Dean” of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, as exemplars of inter-war left “idealism” about Soviet communism without making it clear that most of the key figures who had enthused about the Soviet Union in the 1930s changed their minds after the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939. Sandbrook gives the impression that Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946 somehow determined British government policy – and misses out the role of Ernest Bevin in the creation of Nato. The list of Soviet sympathisers George Orwell handed to Celia Kirwan gets the over-the-top treatment that has now become familiar (please, it was a list of people it would be a bad idea for the Labour government to get to write democratic socialist propaganda, not suggestions for arrest and detention). There’s nothing on Greece, Yugoslavia or Malaya… 

This would have been an excellent topic for a World At War-style documentary – sober, considered, detailed, using film archives for the pictures. Instead, typically for a contemporary TV history documentary, the budget was spent sending the presenter to exotic locations around the world from which he speaks energetically to camera.

For all alternative view, I think more nuanced (but I would say that), buy this book by me and Kevin Davey.

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